A look at thug life, 1950s style

Like musician Paul Simon, Eric Schneider was fascinated by the tale of the Capeman.

Unlike Simon, Schneider didn't let his fascination lead him into a dead end.

When Schneider, associate director of academic affairs in the College and adjunct associate professor of history, discovered that most of the crucial documents relating to the life and murder trial of Puerto Rican gang member Salvador Agron, dubbed "The Capeman" in the press, were missing, he decided instead to delve into Argron's environment - the New York City youth gangs of the 1950s.

The result is a book that may offer some cautionary tales for our own time. "Vampires, Dragons and Egyptian Kings" (Princeton University Press, 1999) explores why young men in working- and lower-class New York neighborhoods joined gangs and how the larger society responded to gang violence.

When Eric Schneider told his 10-year-old son, a confirmed "Star Wars" fan, about his current research project, his son replied in his best Darth Vader voice, "You're a historian of the dark side."

Photo by Kim Weimer

According to Schneider, changing economic conditions and the massive postwar influx of black and Puerto Rican migrants seeking work helped fuel the growth of gangs in postwar New York, but economics doesn't explain everything. "I took pains to show people as active actors in their lives," he said.

While the decline of manufacturing may have closed off options once open to working-class youth, most young men joined gangs as a means of proving their manhood.

"Ultimately, it boils down to a question of masculinity," he said.

The world Schneider explores in his book is not that far removed from the world he knew as a young boy in a working-class neighborhood on New York's Upper East Side. But Schneider never belonged to a gang, nor did he know anyone who did.

"There were tough kids in my neighborhood, and we recognized them as tougher than us, but they weren't gang members," he said.

That may be because, by the time Schneider grew up in the early 1960s, gang activity had declined precipitously in New York. Government and private social-service agencies launched a panoply of new programs designed to reduce the allure of gangs in the late 1950s, and while they may not have been wholly responsible for the decline, they did have their successes.

"Many of the people I interviewed had made very successful transformations of themselves," Schneider said. "These people took advantage of the [New York City] Youth Board and other resources to pull themselves out [of gang life] in a way they could not have if we had locked them up and thrown away the key."

While gangs declined, they did not go away completely. New York witnessed a resurgence in gang activity in the 1970s, and gangs remain a problem in poor neighborhoods both there and elsewhere.

While Schneider did not write his book to engage in the current debate on youth violence, he hopes it might still have some influence. "If it gives pause to someone who would jump onto some facile solution that is usually wrong, then I think it will have served its purpose," he said.

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Originally published on April 29, 1999